Branching Out

A Learn by Doing approach to the California Olive Oil industry

An acre of olive trees is the latest addition to the Cal Poly crops production operation, planted adjacent to 70 acres of productive citrus, avocados, grapes, deciduous fruit trees and berries used as a learning laboratory for students. The 250 trees, donated by alumnus Jeff Colombini (Agricultural Business, ’85), were planted in June 2020, inspired by a senior project that analyzed the available swath of land for potential new crops to study.

The arbequina olive trees will grow up to be 20 feet tall at full maturity, providing small, fleshy olives that turn black once ripened. While the trees won’t likely bear fruit for another three years, the learning opportunities have already started. Professor Lauren Garner, who teaches fruit science in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department, used the orchard in a spring quarter pomology course to teach students about the planting. Students are also monitoring the new grove of trees for growth markers, including a recent sampling of leaves to check soil nutrient levels. Additional student opportunities include employing pest protection, weed management, monitoring water use and conservation and soil management.

“We teach students to understand the reasons behind the complex decisions made behind the scenes so that when they enter the California agriculture industry, they not only understand what is happening, but they are able to adapt as those industries change over time,” Garner said. “The skills these students are learning are applicable whether they go into olive oil production or something else.”

The olive oil industry is a burgeoning one in California, with more than 400 growers overlooking 37,000 acres of olive trees producing extra virgin olive oil. “The olive industry has been extremely dynamic over the last decade and has changed from being primarily focused on table and canning olives to olive oil production,” Garner said. “That switch has led to adapting older orchards to newer systems that can be harvested mechanically. The growing, dynamic and wide-ranging industry is one that our students will benefit from learning about.”

Joni Shaffery (Agricultural and Environmental Plant Sciences, ’20) helped execute the planning and planting of the orchard. Shaffery returned to college after purchasing a 26-acre farm in Paso Robles, where she grows figs, peaches, cherries, plums, pears, pluots, apricots, nectarines and three varieties of apples, as well as walnuts, pistachios, almonds and pomegranates. She recently added a 900-tree olive orchard. Shaffery plans to work with Cal Poly’s BioResource and Agricultural Engineering Department to create a custom harvester using the Cal Poly olive orchard as a learning field. The skills Shaffery gained at Cal Poly as a student are employed daily on her farm. “The most gratifying part of it is being outdoors on my land and watching it become an engine of production,” she said.


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